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Writing Diversity in Fiction

By on October 09, 2014 . Category Column

We live in a diverse world, no doubt about it. There are an incredible array of countries, cultures, histories, languages, and lifestyles around us. It’s not just racial, either—there’s diversity between socio-economic classes, regions, political viewpoints, personal values, generations…everything. Humans are outrageously diverse, and any good work of fiction is going to include and honour this diversity.

Here’s the thing, though: It has to happen organically.

You can’t just stick some people of colour into your manuscript and call it a day. You have to do your homework, and understand the culture of your character.

This doesn’t mean play into stereotypes, though—quite the opposite. You have to write your character realistically. Recognize that, in a lot of ways, different cultures don’t have to be expressed with extreme blatant differences—the subtle details are the best. You want to respect the culture you’re writing about, not mock it. You want your characters to be genuine people (remember? Characters vs. People?), not caricatures. Writing a character who makes a mockery of a group of people is probably worse than having a completely undiversified cast.

A while back, I wrote a short story about gypsies. This meant a lot of studying the Romany culture, learning the values, beliefs, and day-to-day details of how they live. I learned a lot about the Romany people, much of which didn’t really make it into the story. This is common—you’re always going to have to know more about the story than actually needs to be included. This well of information that you’ve gathered will be valuable; your knowledge will shine through in your writing, even if the details aren’t blatantly expressed.

So read up on the culture, race, generation, sexual orientation, or other group that you’re including in your story, and make sure you know more about them than you need to. Talk to people within that crowd; most people are more than happy to share their experiences and teach someone about who they really are. Everyone likes to feel heard, and most people feel misunderstood and misrepresented, so the opportunity to give an insider’s perspective on their view of the world will, in most cases, be a welcome chance. As long as you’re respectful and express a real interest in them, they’ll most likely be happy to help.

And most of all, don’t be afraid. A lot of writers hesitate to include characters too different from themselves, not because they aren’t open or accepting, but because they’re afraid they’ll do it “wrong” and offend the very people they’re trying to include. This is sad. At the end of the day, you won’t really do it “wrong”—even if your character isn’t like most of the other people in that culture, keep in mind that everyone is unique.

As long as your character’s life experiences make sense with the person they’ve become, you’re good. Remember what I said earlier: You don’t want to play into stereotypes. Characters can have whatever names, interests, goals, beliefs, attitudes, and outlooks that you want them to have, so long as you’re writing genuine people. Just because they fall into a different group from you, it doesn’t mean they’re suddenly some alien being; they’re still human. They’re still people. They’re a lot more like you than you would think, even if you seem miles apart. Characters can and should be whoever they are, as long as you respect and love them (which you should do for all your characters anyway!), and make sure to write them as truthfully as you can.

So if you want to diversify your novel a bit, do it! Don’t be shy, don’t be afraid of offending anyone, and don’t be intimidated by an unfamiliar group of people—we’re all humans, we’re all in this together, and we’re all interested in finding great stories populated with awesome characters, so have fun with it and enjoy your work; that’s what writing is all about, in the end.


Who’s a character diverse from you that taught you about a different culture or lifestyle?


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